Thursday, May 25, 2023

日子Rizi (Days) | Tsai Ming-liang (screenwriter and director) / 2020 [film]

the moment of intimate pleasure

by Douglas Messerli


Tsai Ming-liang (screenwriter and director) 日子 Rizi (Days) / 2020


The great filmmaker Ming-liang Tsai’s Days is what is described as “slow cinema,” his most recent works immersing its viewers in frames in which a single character does only a few chores over a five-to-ten-minute period, the camera remaining basically still except for occasional small shivers of action brought about my passing cars and trucks, the ambient noise filling in for sound.

     Many viewers will obviously find this frustrating, but if one maintains patience, the rewards are remarkable, for gradually you begin to scan the walls for stains, the floors the detritus and other small objects, taking careful note also of the individuals’ bodies and their movements—all of which begin draw one into the frame instead of speeding you along a durational journey forward. This type of filmmaking almost demands that you join the characters on their slow voyages through time and space, that like a guest in Non’s (Anong Houngheuangsy) kitchen, you enjoy watching him cook the meal before your eyes, that you share Kang’s (Lee Kang-Sheng) bodily remedies of a long bath, a visit to the acupuncturist, and his simple pleasures of the landscape. Tsai wants us to get to know his characters intimately, eschewing plot, dialogue, and even major action—with one notable exception.


      For two hours and seven minutes you are invited to share two strangers’ lives, beings, ironically, who themselves live in painful isolation and loneliness. We become voyeurs of those who might seem least interesting to those who regularly enjoy voyeuristic behavior. But strangely, if you can remain patient, you discover a deep well of emotional being within yourself and these characters before the camera pulls you away from them.

     Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang nicely summarizes the entire film:


“The story told in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days couldn’t be simpler or more affecting. We are following two men who haven’t yet met each other but are plainly destined to do so: Even when they’re not occupying the same frame, they move through their private worlds in what feels like a shared silence and — contradictory as the phrase may sound — a shared solitude. One day they finally meet, forging a bond that sends shockwaves of emotional and erotic release through this beautifully becalmed movie. And then they say goodbye, returning to lives of loneliness captured here with a spellbinding intimacy, something Tsai offers us as if it were the most casual of gifts.”


     Of the two, the elder Kang, I would argue, although better off financially, owning his own home, leads the less interesting life of the two. First of all, like Tsai’s long-time muse, Lee Kang- Sheng, who plays this role, he is afflicted by a debilitating neck injury, and most of his time is spent on bodily treatments to lessen his pain. Kang lives in a lovely house in the suburbs where he collects tropical fish and takes long walks. He is brought to the city for a medical treatment that involves needles placed into his upper back, shoulders, and neck with small objects that burn, bringing the heat presumably down through the needles to his body to help relieve the pain.


     Non is an unlisted Laotian immigrant, as is the actor Houngheuangsy. He evidently works part-time as a sales-guard in a cheap clothes shop in an open shopping arena, working late hours. But when he isn’t working, he spends long periods preparing his several dishes of vegetables, noodles, and spices in his small apartment located on the outskirts of city. We watch him as he washes the greens, shreds the bamboo, and heats up the noodles, rice, and sauces with the kind of fascination we watch Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman in her kitchen peeling potatoes. 

     Neither of these men’s lives is fulfilling, and as anyone can perceive both their lives are empty; but at least we get the feeling that Non enjoys the cooking, whereas Kang can only suffer his pain.

     It is, perhaps, inevitable accordingly that the man who enjoys the process is called on by the man who suffers the process of his illness for comfort, Non’s name obviously being listed on a card or with service as a masseur who does full body erotic massages.

      It is his long massage of Kang—which we are asked to watch in full as Non pummels, pushes, and rubs into nearly every muscle of the elder man’s body from his toes to his fingers, from his legs and ass to his forehead—and finally in the unembarrassed sexual act of masturbation, body frotting, and kisses with which the younger provides, ending in joyful ejaculation that might be described as the major event of the movie.


      For that long 20-minute sequence the two men suddenly find release, as Justin Chang has worded it, from their loneliness. And even then it doesn’t quite end, as Non helps Kang to soap up and shower and after Kang presents a gift of a small music box with which Non is so charmed that he plays the music for a long while, the song being the same music as in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Kang, puts his hand gently on Non’s knee as the song plays on, and when it’s ended you can see that the two men are still not eager to take leave of one another.

      Eventually, however, Non stands, puts on his back pack and, after being hugged by Kang, leaves. Moments later, Kang quickly stands and himself leaves the room. In the next frame, the two are sharing dinner at a fast-food noddle shop, lit up brightly from inside as busses and trucks roar past the shop.

       Kang returns to his rural retreat, the last time we watch him is while he brings new fish into a tank, carefully puts them into fresh water, and removes them with that water into a plastic bag, obviously planning to introduce them into another thank. Later he goes for a long walk in the dark through the empty rural streets.

       We witness Non at his job and the next morning rising from his slumber. Kang’s eyes also open and we watch as it can only imagine he remembers the day before with its pleasures.

     Non finally wanders down an early-morning busy street, sitting on a bench for several moments before retrieving the music box from his bag and playing it, even though with the noise of the passing auto, motorbikes, and busses, makes it is nearly impossible to hear.

        But in these acts, we can truly perceive that the two men are still faintly interlinked, their lives made fuller by the encounter with one another. 

       Finally, Non rises from his bench and walks off, the screen going black, as critic Jacob Agius notes, ending in a “poignantly tender chapter” of a filmography that is generally quite bleak.


Los Angeles, May 24, 2023

Reprinted from World Cinema Reivew (May 2023).

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